By Jacob Arthur
Before I ventured off to Berlin, Germany to try to find an English teaching job, I took the online TEFL course with the International TEFL Academy, which not only gave me plenty of good tips, practice, and an introduction to various teaching methods, but it was essential to have a TEFL certificate to show my potential employers. Having that was even more important than my two bachelor’s degrees. But one also needs experience to truly improve at something, after two and a half years of teaching in Berlin, here are some things that I have learned from the classroom:
1. Know the grammar rules
Get yourself a good grammar book. I like Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use. Most native speakers of English can’t explain to many foreigners some basic rules about grammar. They only resort to, “That’s just how we say it!” Not only understanding the grammar, but also being ready to provide examples, and being able to explain it in very simple terms is quite valuable. At the beginning I couldn’t explain at all so many basic grammar points, like when to use “I ate” and “I have eaten” or other verb tenses, when to use the infinitive or the gerund, or the seemingly endless number of usages of the verb “get.”
2. Repetition, repetition, repetition…
After a couple of years of teaching, I grew tired of repeating the same things over and over again, only not to be learned by the students. Repetition is undoubtedly an essential part of language learning, and vocabulary, phrases, and rules have to be repeated. But this can be tedious after a while. To avoid feeling burnt out about listening to yourself repeat something for the 18th time, try to find new, creative ways of repeating or reviewing the material, through various exercises, role-playing activities, games, flash cards, props, videos, etc. Repetition, admittedly necessary, can be dull, but putting fresh or new spins on the same material can be refreshing for both you and the students.
3. Let your students be the teachers
My favorite tactic is to let the students try to teach me and/or the other students. This not only saves me from the banal task of repeating myself, but it solidifies the students’ understanding of the material. This is talked about and verified in ITA’s TEFL course, and I can confirm its efficacy. Not only does it get the students talking, but it also enables them to memorize a concept, as teaching is a proven way of memorizing something. To be able to explain a concept in simple terms is a deceivingly difficult task, and if a student can do it in English, it means they have mastered it. It shows they have learned, internalized, and simplified the concept. As a bonus it gives you a little mid-class break.
4. Learn their language
From my experience of teaching in Berlin, Germany, my knowledge of German has greatly helped me teach. For many beginner students, they feel overwhelmed if you can only explain things in English, and so many of my students appreciate the fact that I can explain anything in German if they aren’t getting it. Furthermore, it allows me to understand why they make certain mistakes. I used to be quite bewildered why many students would make the same specific mistakes, until I realized that is how it is said in German. Now I can target specific mistakes German speakers make with ease. You can use as many explanations, examples, gestures, etc. to try to explain a word, but sometimes they just don’t get it. I always try to explain something in English, and then get the students to say the word in German so that I know they have understood it. But after 10 minutes of explanation only to result in blank stares, having the translated word at your disposal can be very beneficial. Finally, learning a language puts you in the perspective of the students, and shows you what it would be like in their seats.
5. Be prepared for spontaneity
Lessons usually never go exactly according to plan. Some exercises last way too long, or not long enough. Some topics are exhausted and there are still 20 minutes left on the clock. Technology abandons you on a whim. But most often the students own inquiry can lead a lesson into unexpected territory. Students do ask questions, and sometimes they come out of nowhere. But when a student asks a question, it shows real interest in the subject, which is always great. Two elderly students once asked me, “What is YouTube?” This opened up a can of worms about the Internet, technology, and many websites like Netflix and Instagram, which they never knew existed. Their homework was to watch a few YouTube videos and write summaries about them, which they found absolutely enthralling. Have a plan, but know that plans often go awry, and in those cases it is necessary to be flexible.
6. Find what makes them tick
It’s obvious that you should have planned lessons and your own style of teaching, but tailoring your lessons to your students’ individual needs and wishes is also crucial. The same lesson won’t work for everyone, because of the student’s age, level, personal interest, or even individual idiosyncrasies. But it goes beyond that. Learning what makes them tick, what they don’t care about at all, and what peaks their interest is a very important and useful thing to know. Some students can converse about anything, but many are reticent or terse or just simply quite shy about speaking in English, and finding the things they are interested in really help them open up. Finding only topics you are interested in results in too much teacher talking time, and a half-interested and probably confused classroom. Sometimes students can really say a lot if they have something they want to say, and having people opening up leads to a genuine human connection.
These are a few things that I have learned to implement in the classroom, which has my made my job easier and my classroom a better place to learn. There is no replacement for solid experience, and once you get a few lessons under your belt you will find out what works for you, and that it is a rewarding thing to help others speak your language.
Jacob Arthur is 27 from Lynchburg, Virginia with a BA in history from Virginia Tech University in 2012. He was a waiter in a family owned restaurant before deciding to fly off to Berlin, Germany to teach English.